N.H. House hearing on minimum wage draws crowd from both sides

Last modified: 2/12/2014 11:59:03 PM
Anita Mendes keeps her house at 62 degrees in the winter. She tailors her own clothes so she doesn’t have to buy more and eats often at community dinners, helping clean up afterward to show her gratitude. She rarely pays even a few dollars to go to community dances or other social events.

Many lobbyists and organizations who support a bill to increase the minimum wage used statistics to make their case to a House committee yesterday. Mendes, 67, put a face to those numbers.

Mendes shared her story with the House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services committee because she thinks people “don’t have an accurate picture of welfare mothers.” She has a master’s degree and spent most of her life working to support her two sons without child support from their father, at one point receiving food stamps. For the past four years, she’s worked 18 hours a week for minimum wage to supplement her Social Security income and struggles to make ends meet. Her sons now have successful careers, and she relies on them as well as her mother, who is older than 90, for support. The $30 more a week she’d make with the minimum wage increase would make a big difference, she said.

“I would feel more valued as a worker, and I would enjoy some modest improvements to my way of life,” she said.

New Hampshire repealed its minimum wage of $7.25 an hour in 2011, a mostly symbolic move that led the state to rely on the federal wage of the same amount. This bill would set a state minimum wage at $8.25 an hour in 2015 then raise it to $9 an hour in 2016. After that, increases would be tied to the consumer price index.

The hearing on the bill comes after a call from President Obama in his State of the Union address for states to increase their minimum wages, but the chance of a minimum wage passing New Hampshire’s Republican-led Senate is slim. Supporters argue it is both morally sound and smart economic policy to raise the minimum wage and called the increase “modest.” But opponents said the increase is far from small, and it would result in businesses hiring fewer workers for fewer hours. Furthermore, opponents said, it would create pressure for all employees’ wages to rise.

“Small-business owners that have just a few employees are going to want to make, for themselves, what they currently make,” said Curtis Barry, a lobbyist for the Retail Merchants Association of New Hampshire. “They will say, ‘We will do more with less, I’ll work more myself.’ ”

Raising the minimum wage to $8.25 then $9 wouldn’t just raise wages for those people making $7.25 an hour, he noted. It would raise wages for everyone in between and encourage higher-paid employees to seek comparable increases. And the higher an employer’s payroll costs, the more they pay in certain taxes, he said.

Supporters of a wage increase said that a raise in pay would result in workers putting money back into the local economy by paying for things such as groceries and rent to local landlords.

They also said raising the minimum wage is simply the right thing to do. Gail Kinney, a pastor at the South Danbury Christian Church, asked the committee to think about their friends and fellow community members who make $7.25 an hour. She then read a note from one of her church members, asking whether the opponents of a minimum wage increase have ever scrounged in their car for gas money or had to choose between food and heating their homes.

“I wish there was a way for the nay voters to spend a week with the families who are suffering,” Kinney read from that email.

Caitlin Rollo of Granite State Progress, which supports the bill, told the committee that 72 percent of New Hampshire workers making minimum wage are over the age of 20, according to the Economic Policy Institute, disputing the argument that only teenagers make minimum wage. In total, 59 percent of minimum wage workers are women and 14 percent are parents, she said.

Making a low wage affects housing opportunities as well, said Laurel Redden of Housing Action NH. The definition of “affordability” is for 30 percent of a person’s income to go toward housing, leaving enough left over for food and other necessities, she said. By that definition, someone working 40 hours a week at minimum wage has about $400 a month to spend on housing, yet the median gross rent in the state for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,018 a month, Redden said.

“So you can see where that does not leave a household making minimum wage sufficient income to afford not only rent but other necessities,” she said.

Opponents of the bill also offered suggestions on how to change or amend the bill. State law sets the wage for tipped employees, such as waiters, at 45 percent of the minimum wage, and this bill wouldn’t change that. Kevin Sullivan, a former state representative and chairman of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, asked the committee to freeze that wage in place at $3.25 an hour because tipped employees already get increases as food prices go up and restaurant bills increase. His teenage daughter would regularly make $80 to $100 a day for working a four-hour shift serving breakfast, he said.

Bruce Berke, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, also suggested that lawmakers add in a “training wage” provision for teenagers who start in entry-level jobs. Several states already have training wages that are separate from minimum wage laws, he said. Berke said a ski area general manager he knows, for example, said he only pays minimum wage to 16- and 17-year-olds.

Ultimately, Berke said, increasing the minimum wage would impose too great a burden on business owners who are already working to navigate new health care costs and other challenges.

The committee has until March 6 to make a recommendation on the bill before sending it to the full House.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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